State strips visas of 55 Central Americans engaged in corruption

State strips visas of 55 Central Americans engaged in corruption
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The State Department on Thursday released a list of 55 Central American officials, former officials, lawyers and business leaders who have engaged in corruption or anti-democratic acts and who will no longer be allowed to travel to the United States.

The list includes the former presidents of Guatemala and Honduras, as well as a handful of Salvadoran cabinet officials and more than a dozen sitting Honduran legislators. 

"Overall it's a good solid start, I think the list sends a good message of the Biden administration's commitment and focus to support anti-corruption efforts in the region," said Adriana Beltrán, director of citizen security at WOLA, a hemispheric human rights think tank. 

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The State Department's broad designation comes as the Biden administration has taken its first steps to implement its strategy to attack the root causes of regional migration. 

In April, Vice President Harris laid out the strategy, which is essentially a carrot and stick approach to address the region's corruption, widely seen as the underlying cause of much of the instability that leads to emigration. 

"These two topics come together very closely in that part of the world because corruption and attacks on democracy are viewed as some of the most important root causes of irregular migration from Central America," said State Department Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zúñiga on a call with reporters Thursday.

"They hobble governance, they distort markets, they undercut development efforts, and ultimately they demoralize a population that decides to embark on a very dangerous irregular migration to Mexico and the United States because they don't believe they can build their futures at home," added Zúñiga.

Administration officials have warned that the "stick" side of the equation will focus on individualized sanctions targeting members of the region's elites, particularly depriving corrupt actors and their families of visas and access to the U.S. financial system.

"The action that we take under this authority does not exclude other sanctions and in fact, a number of the people who are on this list, have been the subject of other measures by the United States," said Zúñiga.

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The behaviors that landed individuals on Thursday's list are broad, ranging from misappropriating funds for personal benefit, to undermining democratic institutions, to "allowing malign Chinese influence" in elections, to receiving bribes from drug cartels and imprisoning political opponents. 

Former Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom is listed, accused of fraud and embezzlement in a Guatemala City infrastructure deal. Colom was arrested and later released by Guatemalan authorities in 2018 on charges related to that deal. 

Honduran former President José Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo Sosa and his wife, former First Lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, are also listed, the former first lady for corruption and misappropriation of public funds, and the former president for allegedly accepting bribes from a drug cartel. 

Five of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele's advisors are also included, including Minister of Labor Óscar Rolando Castro and Chief of Cabinet Martha Carolina Recinos de Bernal. 

Notably, actors associated with all of El Salvador's major political parties, including Bukele's Nuevas Ideas party, were included in the list.

"It highlights that you're not talking about isolated cases, but a systemic problem," said Beltrán.

Two Salvadoran former officials were listed in connection to their relationship with China, in one case a former mayor accused of "abusing his authority as mayor in the sale of Perico Island to agents of the People's Republic of China in exchange for personal benefit."

"One thing is that normal economic competition that you have, and the other is actions that are corrupt, and that are on behalf of an external actor that seeks to build influence that way," said Zúñiga.

The list of high-level Guatemalans now banned from travel to the United States is heavy with officials and former officials who have obstructed the appointment of judges, a source of tension in Guatemala's foreign relations, particularly with the United States and Europe.

And the Honduran list is notable in that it includes more than a dozen sitting members of the country's legislature, many involved in efforts to embezzle money from government agencies and public welfare programs. 

The State Department list is also notable for who is not on it. 

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose brother is serving a life sentence in the United States for drug trafficking, has himself been widely accused of participating in the drug trade, but is not on the list.

And some observers expected to see on the list Sandra Torres, a Guatemalan former first lady, former presidential candidate and ex-wife of Colom, who is listed.

Zúñiga said the list published Thursday is not exhaustive, and other sanctions may follow for the people included in this or any future list. 

"This list is one of a variety of tools that we have available for providing accountability for corruption and undemocratic actions," said Zúñiga. "It's also not a final list."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect number of people who will no longer be allowed to travel to the United States. There are 55 people on the list.